“People Want to Help”

I ran into an old friend/colleague recently.  He’s still in the business I left behind and he has had a bit of a rocky road since we worked at the same organization, and he had that almost desperate honesty that people get when they’re at their wits’ end.  In a stairwell in a parking garage, he told me he was miserable in his current position and was really looking for something new.

I have been there.  I have felt that choking anxiety that comes with working in a situation that feels like a cage, with a boss who feels like an abusive jailor.  So I said, “I know someone you can talk to – would you like me to set up a dinner or drinks with her? I’ll go to introduce you and be there so it isn’t as awkward.  I don’t know if she has anything, but she’s at least one more person in your industry who can keep an eye open.”

So, about 24 hours later my husband and I were having a couple of beers with one of my best friends and my old colleague.  And because my friend is empathy personified, she told my old colleague, “Nobody should be miserable.  We’ll sort you out.”  She named several organizations she knew who were looking for people with his skills and experience. After we left, my old colleague thanked me for setting up the meeting as if it was a hassle or trial for me.

But here’s the thing.  I love doing this.  I love putting people together who can help one another.  It’s pure joy to me.  I’ve introduced people on Facebook, via e-mail, and in person.  People who can help one another in all sorts of ways and who are mutually thrilled with the new connection.  And I told my old colleague, “Remember this: people mostly want to help. It feels really good to help other people.  Just let them.”

It’s sad, really…

…how true this is:

How you know you are in the right place – or – slime and substance

How do you know you have chosen the right profession?

Back in my communications days, my boss and I decided that a good way to give our investors the increasingly voluminous amounts of information they demanded was via a CD.  While everything the investors were looking for was on our website, they often wanted to have something physical (I know – I don’t understand it either.  But this was also more than three years ago.  Much has changed in the intervening years.  Or possibly much has not, but one of the things I learned in communications was that giving people what they wanted in the format they wanted it in was infinitely more effective than giving them what they wanted in a format they weren’t particularly interested in).

Since we already offered a standard information kit – a two-pocket folder filled with sheets of 8.5 x 11″ paper – the trick was how to get the CDs in their hands.  We didn’t want to abandon all of the paper, since you don’t need a computer to read paper, and an investor who grabbed our kit at a conference out of curiosity wasn’t going to boot up his or her laptop in order to find out if we were interesting enough to merit a visit to our presentation.  So we would stick with our folder and some of our paper.  But then what?  The heavier, odd-shaped CD was likely to slide out of the folder, leaving the meat of our information in some hotel hallway or Manhattan street.

Trust me, we’re getting to the library part soon.

So my boss and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: “What we need is some of that sticky goop that peels away.”

Boss: “What sticky goop?”

Me: “You know – the snot they stick plastic gift cards to the cardstock enclosure cards with.”

Boss:  “…” (Here I imagine that if he did not know me better, he would be thinking, “What kind of lunatic have I hired?”  Since he knew me quite well, he was probably thinking, “Yep, that’s our lunatic.”)

Me: “That way, the CD will stick to the folder, but the investors can peel the snot away and put it in a file if they want to [edit: I meant put the CD in a file – I am sure nobody wanted to file the snot].”

Surprisingly, this plan was decided to be sound.  Here’s where the library bit came in: I did not know how much the snot cost.  I did not know how the snot was dispensed.  I had no idea who to source the snot from.  I did not know what the snot was called in order to find out the answers to any of these questions. But the prospect of finding out was one that intrigued me.  I knew this was something that was something, just as a young law student might know that a party-giver who lets someone drunkenly drive away from his home has a possible legal problem on his hands but not how to begin researching it in legal sources until he has learned its name.

I did not know, but found out by a process of iterative searches that the snot is called fugitive adhesive.  The law student would find out that their issue is one of social host liability.  I hope two things for that imaginary law student: 1.) that he enjoys the process of finding out, and 2.) he does not bore his friends and colleagues with delight from the aptness of the term as I am liable to do to this day.*  But I do know that my love of the search and my delight in its result tells me (and not for the first time) that I have chosen the right profession.

*I mean really – how can you not love the term “fugitive adhesive”?

Lies we tell ourselves about research (and one way of getting to the truth)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that “students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.”  This is not just true of students – I believe many of us, both professionals information-finders and amateurs, think we are very good at finding information.  We may well be right in most cases, but in most cases we also may be looking for things that are very easy to find.  And as we all know, there are many ways for pieces of information to hide.

You can have information that hides in plain sight – the old saw about how a search for “Turkey” is just as likely to bring up recipes as it is travel guides is a true one.  Similarly, we may have many names for the same concept: “fair value accounting” is also commonly called “mark-to-market accounting.”  A search for only one of these terms may miss some very valuable information.

This is where I insert a plea for indexes and other finding aids.  “Targeted full-text search” sounds really, really good until you come up against a term like “securities fraud.”  It is a very useful descriptive term in its own right; however, it is also maddeningly general.  What sort of securities fraud are you talking about?  Do you even know?  How do you find out?  Well, one way is certainly to walk down the tried and true legal research method of consulting a secondary source like a treatise, a hornbook, an encyclopedia, or a nutshell.

Another way of approaching the search process is to consult the index of a publication (if there is one – unfortunately, they have been deemed expendable by many in the era of full text).  Now, if you have consulted my “About” page, you may say, “Oh – but you would say that: you work as an index editor!”  And yes, I do.  But I also used to use this trick as a law student, many years before I even knew what an index editor was.

When you look at an index, you are not looking at a haphazard assortment of keywords.  Usually you are looking at a selected set of meaningfully distinguished, specific terms set out in an organized way: a hierarchical map of the work in question.  And if there are two terms that mean the same thing, you will encounter a see instruction (e.g. “mark-to-market accounting, see fair value accounting”).

The clues dropped by an index can thereby increase the efficiency of a free-text search.  You can scan down the index entries for “securities fraud” and see the various types of fraud that an ingenious fraudster can commit – perhaps those would be more specific, fruitful terms for you to use in your search.  You can also get a sense of what alternate terms for your area of interest might be useful.

How often do the search terms we use initially really do the job?  Well, as in any enterprise, that depends.  But looking at an index is one way of helping to make the search process a targeted, fruitful endeavor.